"You are holding an unusual hymnal! The texts here are not grouped by theme, season of the year, or order of worship. Rather, they are presented in chronological order by text, beginning with a sampling of Old Testament psalms and continuing right up to songs written in the past few years. Paging through this book, then, is like taking a 3,000-year journey through the songs of God’s people.”
I’ve been planning and looking forward to this issue for some time. And now it’s finally in your hands! I feel a little selfish in dedicating this entire theme issue to the psalms because part of the impetus for it was my own desire to learn. Why is it that people are attracted to the psalms? What do we make of the current trend of increased psalm singing?
The following article, along with parts 2 and 3 to be published in later issues, though not typical for Reformed Worship, is well worth spending some time on. Pastors, musicians, and worship planners alike can benefit from considering the pairing of text and tune and the challenges that arise from a plethora of choices. In addition, several denominations are in the process of developing new hymnbooks for congregational song.
My quest to understand the psalms of lament began in the midst of a deep period of depression. I had spent a wonderfully rich two months in Ethiopia, recording Christian Somali music for broadcast from Ethiopia over Somalia. During my time there I received numerous “prophetic words” that doors would open for me when I returned to Canada. But within a few short months of my return I was unemployed and living in the basement of a friend’s parent’s house. My familial home had burned down and a friend of mine had committed suicide.
Imagine a piece of art that you would like to hang or install in your home. If it’s a painting, you’d want to frame it and then find the right spot in the right room for it, so that your viewing of the painting would be enriched by its placement. If it’s a sculpture, you’d want to find the spot that best honors the piece and allows you to enjoy it fully.
The biblical heading for Psalm 102 is “The prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.” In the honest and vivid language typical of the psalms, the writer expresses a cry of pain and desolation, coupled with a poetic and, strangely, almost clinical description of the emotions, thoughts, and physical symptoms of a dying person. So how might we use this psalm in pastoral ministry and worship?
I suggest using the adaptation of Psalm 102, found on the next page, in at least two pastoral settings.
Growing up in a conservative Reformed church in the Netherlands, I sang only from the Genevan Psalter, a collection including all 150 psalms that was created hundreds of years ago under the supervision of John Calvin.
Behind this almost 500-year-old practice was the belief that singing the words of the psalms together meant we were singing the divinely inspired Word of God.
Am I really supposed to pray like this? That is the question I kept asking myself when I first started praying through the psalms. I tried to make the prayers “my own” but found that I could not. I tried to pray through the psalms in their totality—their joy, anger, praise, lament, exultation, despair, longing, and hope—but it was just too much for me. I wanted these prayers to echo through the depths of my heart. I tried praying through the psalms in a week, in a month, in three months.
Early this year I began working on an article for RW on the liturgical use of difficult psalms. Then on January 12 we received the news that an earthquake had struck the island nation of Haiti. By Sunday it was evident that the number of people killed, injured, or homeless would be measured in the hundreds of thousands. That Sunday morning I worshiped with two different congregations. The first congregation offered impassioned prayers for Haiti, but in a liturgical context that did not deviate from the plans laid out earlier in the week.
A colleague and friend once described a game she played with her children. They called it “I’ve got a song for that.” It was an opportunity to nurture in her kids a repertoire of songs for times of joy or sadness.
As our worship committee planned a service around Psalm 130, we were reminded that this is a Psalm of ascents, sung by the people of Israel as they approached the temple to worship. The psalmist begins in the depths of sin, moves to trusting in God as the One who forgives, and concludes with a communal call to trust in God. Wanting to remain true to the text, we planned our service as a journey moving from sin to trust. This momentum helped us all to acknowledge our need for a Savior and to go forward, confidently trusting in the Lord’s compassion.
Our congregation lives in a secular California suburban culture that’s enamored by and often addicted to the latest trends in fashion, décor, and home design. A thousand voices urge us to work and purchase our way to happiness. Two years ago anyone driving through our growing city might have been impressed by its carefully manicured lawns, late-model SUVs, and growing number of hybrids. Everything looked new. Everyone looked happy. On the outside everything was fine. It was as if everyone was busy refining what sociologists call “image management.”
When someone makes profession of faith at our church, after all of the important theological questions are answered, my favorite question to ask is, “What talents or abilities might you be able to share with others in our church?” The answers are what you’d expect: “I like kids, so I’d be good working in the nursery or teaching Sunday school”; “I own a business, so I think I could be a good deacon”; “I can sing, so perhaps I could join a praise team.” But never once have I heard, “I can paint” or “I can sew banner
As to public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists of words alone; the other includes music. And this is no recent invention. For since the very beginning of the church it has been this way, as we may learn from history books. Nor does St. Paul himself speak only of prayer by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know from experience that song has a great power and strength to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a heart more vehement and ardent.
I want to thank you for the series on the book of Job. I had been asked a few years back to preach on Job. As I am nearing the end of my time in the church here in Saskatoon, my thoughts went back to that request. Then I opened up the December issue of Reformed Worship to find this series. It was a Godsend in so many different ways! Thank you for your good words in the sermon notes. They have been helpful in shaping some of what I’ve preached on.
Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship
by Brett Scott Provance.
InterVarsity Press, 2009. 140 pages.
What is a canticle, a rubric, or chrismation? Do I need these to worship? Why do they make the language for worship so hard?
Q Is it really legitimate to treat some psalms as if they refer to Jesus?
A Christians have long interpreted several psalms (16, 24, 72, 110, and others) as referring to Jesus. This is very similar to Christological readings of other Messianic prophecies, such as Isaiah 7, 9, or 40.
How often do we equate an experience of God with good feelings? I regularly hear my students make this association. From time to time I ask them how God is at work in their lives. Their answers are telling: “My relationships with friends are really good” or “I did really well on my mid-term exam” or “My spring break trip was awesome!”
It’s time we held a special service of prayer for the Middle Eastern Church.
Some of you may be taken aback by this. Is there such a thing as the “Middle Eastern Church?” Is there really a Christian presence in the Middle East? And if there is, what does it look like?